Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1774. He grew up on a farm with a large apple orchard. At the age of 20, Johnny strapped a bag of apple seeds to his back and headed west to the Ohio Valley. When he arrived, he began a lifelong mission: going from town to town, planting apple trees and sharing seeds with settlers. Johnny, who died in 1845, became a nationally known celebrity when a story about his deeds appeared in an 1871 issue of Harper’s magazine. Since then, many tales have circulated about him, including claims that he spent a snowy evening snuggled up to a hibernating bear and that he had a knack for communicating with animals. No one can say for certain how true these stories are, but Johnny Appleseed remains one of America’s most popular folk heroes.
In the 19th century, lots of folks passed the time making up stories about Johnny Appleseed. Invite students to do the same now. Begin by discussing Johnny as a folk hero. Point out that while he was a real person, people often told exaggerated tales about his life for entertainment. Brainstorm a list of whatif scenarios with Johnny at the core. For example, what if Johnny befriended a chatty chipmunk or married a woman whose passion was peaches? Divide the class into pairs or groups and challenge them to develop an idea from the list into a tall tale. Publish the stories in a Johnny Appleseed Tall Tale Anthology, complete with illustrations.